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Capital punishment; the death penalty

Public support for, opposition to, and
alternatives to the death penalty. State moratoriums.

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Public support for the death penalty, and alternatives

The American Civil Liberties Union noted that in the 1960's and 1970's only a bare majority of Americans favored capital punishment. They believe that "mounting fear of crime, and the cynical manipulation of the death penalty issue by many politicians for their own political gain, led to a shift upwards." The death penalty now has broad public support in both the United States and Canada. 1

Surveys in the US and Canada regularly show that a sizable majority of adults are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers. Depending upon the exact question asked, 65 to 80% of adults are in favor of the death penalty. In 1984, individuals who give greatest support to capital punishment were found to be older, white, male, rich, urban dwellers, politically independent, and religious believers. 2 The numbers appear to increase when people believe that the crime rate as increasing.

Support varies with race and faith group: 3,4

Faith Group White African-American
Fundamentalists high level of support for death penalty oppose death penalty
Other evangelicals various positions oppose death penalty
Views:    
More likely shaped by: concern over criminal behavior perceptions of the law &criminal justice system

A serious deficiency of almost all public opinion polls is that they generally ask too simple a question: whether the subject is in favor of the death penalty or not. They rarely offer alternatives to execution in their polling questionnaires. One exception was an ABC News/Washington Poll released on 2001-MAY-2. It shows a public ambivalence towards the continuation of the death penalty. When asked whether or not they supported the death penalty, the public responded 63% in favor. This is a major reduction in support from the 80% level, seven years previously. Of even greater potential importance is that if life without parole is offered as an option, response is a statistical dead heat: 46% favor the death penalty; 45% favor life without any chance at parole. The ABC News/Washington Post poll also determined that most American adults believe that: 

bullet The death penalty does not act as a deterrent.

bullet The death penalty is applied unfairly across jurisdictions.

bullet Innocent people are sometimes executed.

51% of the public would support a nationwide moratorium while a commission studies whether the death penalty is being administered fairly. When they were told that just such a moratorium and study was underway in Illinois, their support rose to 57%. 5

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Political attempts to abolish the death penalty:

bullet 1988 & 1994: Federal laws: New federal laws were passed that expanded the number of offenses punishable by the death penalty. Although there have been no federal executions for the past 36 years, 21 federal prisoners are on death row; one was scheduled to be electrocuted in early 2001.

bullet 1999-NOV: Stop federal executions: Senator Feingold introduced bill S 1917, "Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act" in 1999-NOV. It would prevent any future federal executions and would prohibit the death penalty for violations of federal law. The bill did not proceed.
bullet 2000-JAN-31: IL temporary abolition: Governor G.H. Ryan of Illinois announced that he will create a moratorium on executions in that state until after an administration review of the death penalty. More details. The Illinois Legislature finally abolished the death penalty in 2011.

bullet 2000-APR: Letter to the President: A number of religious groups wrote a letter to President Clinton calling on him to declare a moratorium on the federal death penalty.

bullet

2000-APR: Bill introduced: According to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations Washington Office for Faith in Action, Senators Feingold (WI) and Levin (MI)

"... introduced S 2463, a bill which would immediately suspend executions in the United States while a national commission reviews the administration of the death penalty.  The moratorium would bar execution of individuals sentenced under either state or federal statutes.  Currently 38 states have death penalty statutes on the books."
The bill did not proceed. 6

bullet 2005-NOV-07: Catholic bishops heavily promoting end to death penalty:  According to ReligionLink: "U.S. Catholic bishops say they want to 'seize a new moment and new momentum' in their 25-year campaign against capital punishment. They're set to approve a new statement urging an end to the death penalty at their Nov. 14-17 meeting at a time when advocates on both sides of the issue say that opinions are more in flux than they have been in years." 7

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State moratoriums:

On 2000-JAN-31, Governor G.H. Ryan of Illinois announced a moratorium on executions in that state until after an administration review of the death penalty is completed. More details.

During 2000-SEP,  The Texas Civil Rights Project issued a report which called for a moratorium on executions in that state until changes can be made to the system. They recommended:

bullet Changes to the selection process for defense attorneys. The American Bar Association has established standards in this area which require lawyers to have at least five years experience, and training in defense of capital cases.

bullet Defense attorneys should be paid at close to the market rates.

bullet Financial compensation should be guaranteed to anyone who has been wrongfully convicted.

bullet Prosecuting attorneys should be subject to lawsuits if they concealed evidence from the defense, knowingly used perjured testimony or knowingly used tainted evidence. They are currently immune from prosecution.

bullet Creation of a life-without-parole sentence option for capital cases.

bullet Allow jurors who have doubts about the fairness of the system to serve in capital cases.

bullet Not allowing crimes, that a defendant has been accused of but not convicted of, to be mentioned during sentencing hearings.

bullet Consideration of the use of two juries in capital cases: one to try the individual and the other to assign the sentence.

bullet Restoration of the right of habeas corpus.

bullet Reinstating the previous appeals legislation.

bullet Guarantee that the inmate receive a new lawyer for appeals in death cases.

bullet Guarantee DNA testing for any convict that requests it.

bullet Overhaul the Board of Pardons and Paroles' procedures.

bullet Alter legislation to ban the execution of persons who were minors at the time of the crime.

bullet Alter legislation to ban the execution of developmentally disabled persons.
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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Death Penalty," American Civil Liberties Union, at: http://www.aclu.org/
  2. J.E. Dison,  "Changing Attitudes Toward Capital Punishment, 1972- 1982," presented to the American Society of Criminology, 1984. Cited in GSS at: http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/
  3. R.L. Young,  "Religious Orientation, Race and Support for the Death Penalty," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31 (1992-MAR), Pages 76-87. Cited in the General Social Survey Data and Information Retrieval System (GSS) at: http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/  
  4. R.L. Young,  "Religious Orientation, Race and Support for the Death Penalty," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31 (1992-MAR), Pages 76-87. Cited in the General Social Survey Data and Information Retrieval System (GSS) at: http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/
  5. "ABC News/Washington Post poll: The death penalty revised," 2001-MAY-02.
  6. CyberNewsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Association Washington Office, 2000-APR-28.
  7. "DEATH PENALTY: Catholic bishops leading new push for change," ReligionLink, 2005-NOV-07, at: http://www.religionlink.org/

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Copyright © 1995 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2012-APR-25

Author: B.A. Robinson
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